After graduating from Atlanta’s Clark College in 1955, Ponder, who was born in McDonough, Ga., worked as a teacher, librarian and part of an on-the-ground force of black women working against voter suppression.
That fight is being waged again in a close race for Georgia governor between Democrat Stacey Abrams, the first African American woman nominated for governor by a major political party, and Republican Brian Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state who oversees Georgia’s election system.
Abrams has accused Kemp of voter suppression by putting more than 53,000 voter-registration applications on hold because they failed the state’s “exact match” rule, which sets aside registrations if there are minor discrepancies, even typos or missing letters, between the form and a voter’s identification. Most of those flagged voter registrations belong to African Americans, which has triggered a legal battle in the days before the election.
Black women in Georgia played significant roles in fighting voter suppression before the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, recalled Clarissa Myrick-Harris, president and CEO of OWA Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Georgia that is dedicated to education and socioeconomic empowerment.
"She did a great deal in the field, and for sure she is someone who should be talked about,” Myrick-Harris said of Ponder. “Ponder was beaten and suffered. She is someone who needs to be focused on more.”
“It was black women in the forefront of getting the vote out, generally," said Myrick-Harris, who wrote a chapter in the book, “Southern Black Women in the Modern Civil Rights Movement." Because of a 1946 voter registration campaign led, in large measure by black women, the number of registered black voters in Georgia rose from 30,000 to 125,000, Myrick-Harris said. In Atlanta, registered black voters climbed from 3,000 to 21,000
“Black women were a force to be reckoned with in the mid 20th century and collectively helped to galvanize the limited black voting strength of African-American women and men throughout the state," Myrick-Harris said.
It was dangerous work.
Before and during the civil rights movement, hundreds of black people were fired if they tried to register to vote, and some were shot and killed driving people to register to vote.
The cadre of black women working against voter suppression included hair dressers, members of women’s clubs, auxiliary groups and teachers.
“Teachers were pillars of the community,” Myrick-Harris said. “You listened to the teacher. If the teacher said something, that was gospel.” A famed Atlanta educator named Pearlie Dove often said: “If you can reach the child, you can reach the parent. It was part of the fabric of the community.”
Ponder was one of those teachers. In 1962, after obtaining a master’s degree in social work from Atlanta University, Ponder became a field supervisor for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, joining hundreds of activists traveling the South to register black voters.
In 1963, Ponder was returning from a voter registration training workshop when she and other civil rights workers — including the activist Fannie Lou Hamer — were ordered off a bus in Mississippi.
Ponder, Hamer, June Johnson, Euvester Simpson, James West and Rosemary Freeman were taken to a Montgomery County, Miss., jail, where police began interrogating them about efforts to register black voters in the Deep South.
“When we got there, they started questioning us and one of them said something and I said, ‘Yes,’ or ‘No.’ Then he wanted to know if I had enough respect for him to say, ‘sir,’ when I answered his questions. So, I asked him what he said, and he repeated his question, using the term, ‘n-----’ to refer to me,” Ponder later wrote in an affidavit. “I told him I didn’t know him that well. He looked very angry and confused.”
The officers continued to question Ponder about the voter registration project. Then an officer hit Ponder in the head with his fist.
“They started again insisting I say, ‘sir,’ ” Ponder recalled. “Through all this conversation, they kept hitting me. The police man in a blue uniform at one point took a sort of a blackjack. . . . And from then on he used that in beating me. This went on for about ten minutes, with questioning and my being beaten to the floor and getting up and beaten down again.”
At one point a highway patrolman, Ponder wrote, “hit me in the stomach.”
Ponder, Hamer and the other activists were jailed for three days. Hamer, who suffered severe and permanent physical injuries from the beating, would later testify about the police assault before a Democratic National Committee panel.
“After I was placed in the cell,” Hamer told the DNC credentials committee in 1964. “I began to hear sounds of licks and screams, I could hear the sounds of licks and horrible screams. And I could hear somebody say, ‘Can you say, “Yes, sir,” n-----? Can you say, ‘Yes, sir’?”
Hamer recalled that police called Ponder “horrible names,” Hamer recalled. “She would say, ‘Yes, I can say, “Yes, sir.” ’ ”
“So, well, say it,” the officers ordered.
Ponder refused. “They beat her, I don’t know how long. And after a while she began to pray, and asked God to have mercy on those people.”
When friends went to visit Ponder in the jail, her face was so badly beaten and swollen that she could barely talk.
But Ponder was able to utter one word: “Freedom.”